When doing press for comic book movies, directors and actors almost always claim that they counted themselves as diehard fans of the source material long before they signed on to the lucrative task of adapting it for the screen. While this is likely more often than not a lie, Mark Webb was clearly telling the truth, because only a true Spider-Man fan could make an adaptation as boring as “The Amazing Spider-Man” and harbor the delusion that everyone else would find it even remotely entertaining.
In fairness, “The Amazing Spider Man” is better than the 2002 Sam Raimi origin story, but only because that film was a childish mess. Clocking in at 131 minutes, Webb’s version spends nearly half its runtime on meandering, joyless character development. It hits the same plot points as Raimi’s film, but does so in a fashion that produces a strange result: a geek’s pedantic attention to well-known details through an angst-ridden prism.
Andrew Garfield takes over the Peter Parker role from Tobey Maguire with mixed results. Here, Peter’s mopey attitude creates an uncomfortable, unintentional tension when juxtaposed with the original character’s nerdy interests and altruistic motives. Peter, despite his kindness, comes across as more of a moody jerk than a social outcast. The character’s central conflict–the selfless sacrifice of his personal life in order to honor his murdered uncle–becomes mere vengeance-seeking in this installation, a tricky motivation that proves beyond Webb’s ability to transmute into captivating internal drama.
Despite being a reboot, this film continues the rotation of villains in a way similar to “Batman Begins,” neglecting more popular Spidey foes such as the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus in favor of the Lizard, a brilliant scientist turned unstoppable dinosaur. The scientist, played by Rhys Ifans, proves an uninspired antagonist, his personal relationship with Peter lacking the bitter acrimony of the previous films’ villains. The interplay between Peter and the Lizard, which should be meaningful as they have an important personal connection, comes off as free of any real tension other than their respective roles as good guy and bad guy. For all intents and purposes, these two might as well have been strangers.
Without question, the original series’ iconic moment was the upside down kiss between Peter and Mary Jane Watson. Their playful romantic heat was enduring, and moviegoers had reason to be optimistic about Emma Stone’s casting as Peter’s new love interest, Gwen Stacey, especially in light of Webb’s direction of the similarly effervescent Zooey Deschanel in his brilliant 2009 film “(500) Days of Summer.” Unfortunately, Peter and Gwen’s relationship is a non-starter, a romance built less on chemistry than the script’s urgent need to supply the protagonist with a love interest. And wouldn’t you know it, not only is Gwen’s father (Dennis Leary) the chief of police, but she works at the same lab as the villain! These coincidences are what we film critics commonly refer to as “lazy filmmaking.”
Webb proves a competent handler of the film’s myriad special effects-driven set pieces, which often switch to first-person so that the audience can get a glimpse of the action from Peter’s perspective. Yet, the action scenes blend together, proving that merely competent direction of super-powered fights falls short of the sort of technical wizardry needed to dazzle in a marketplace crammed with costumed heroes.
Webb will no doubt shoulder most of the blame for this creative disappointment in years to come, even if the grosses are fine, but whoever made the decision to make “The Amazing Spider-Man” a thorough retelling of the origin story deserves to share it with him. The best superhero films are almost invariably sequels, from “Superman II” to “The Dark Knight,” partially because they shed the plot elements known by most and instead focus on new adventures. “The Amazing Spider-Man” thus wastes the audience’s time, with over an hour of the film dedicated to a plot identical to the 2002 original, and even has the nerve to end on a near-identical note. The next installment will need to tell a fresh story in order to extend this franchise’s life. Here’s hoping that when Sony selects a director for the sequel, that person couldn’t truthfully be labeled a Spider-Man fan.